Council votes: West U is getting a new $1.8M park — for free

By Charlotte Aguilar

Mayor Susan Sample was visibly moved. City Manager Chris Peifer and Parks and Recreation Director Tim O’Connor were awed by West University’s almost mystical good fortune. Councilmember Mardi Turner and Mayor Pro Tem Bob Kelly were humbly grateful. Neighbors and members of the public were effusive in their praise.

That left only Councilmember Brennan Reilly to sound a sour note Monday night in the excitement as City Council decided to accept the donation of the late Jim Hughes’ $1.6 million family home to the city for use as a park to honor his mother and $200,000 to develop it for purely passive uses.

Despite Sample’s introduction to the agenda item to execute an agreement with the wish that it happen quickly, to “make the process for the donors as painless as possible,” Reilly prolonged what was otherwise a lovefest. His questions and comments reflected his displeasure at not having been privy to the quiet, year-long discussions between Hughes’ family and the city that set up the gift — but he couched them as concerns that the Parks Board should have been involved and neighbors surveyed before the matter came to council.

Hughes, an architect, died April 1 at the age of 89. He lived at the 15,000-square-foot, wooded corner property – purchased by his mother, Jennie, in 1919 — from his boyhood until his death.

The location at 6446 Sewanee Ave. is precisely in the section of West U identified in two parks master plans as needing a park. A stream of nearby neighbors came to the podium to praise the donation, and six supportive emails were read into the record by City Secretary Thelma Gilliam.

“It’s like the master plan was written for this specific donation,” said O’Connor.

Declaring there was “no urgency here,” Reilly said the Parks Board should be allowed to perform “due diligence” and poll “immediate neighbors.”

“We’re talking a donation as opposed to an acquisition,” responded O’Connor.

Turner, who lives near the Sewanee property and has long advocated for a park in the area, dug in. “I’m not willing to walk away from the donation if they’re not thrilled,” she said.

Roger Zink, who lives four doors away from the property, cited changing demographics in the neighborhood that have seen an influx of large numbers of children in recent years. He also pointed to the potential park as “a unique opportunity to change” what he saw as a 25-year trend in the neighborhood that has reduced green space by building large homes on small lots. “It adds back some green space,” he said.

His wife, Dorothy, offered to canvass neighbors the morning after the meeting after hearing Reilly’s persistent questions about neighborhood support.

“If there is any opposition to this, we would have heard it,” said Kelly. “Don’t look a gift horse in the mouth.”

“I say we close this deal,” said an impatient Sample, who insisted that Kelly make the motion for approval. He did, adding the phrase “very generous and heartwarming donation” to the more formal agenda language.

In the end, Reilly was part of the unanimous vote to approve the donation and execute an agreement. (Ironically, Councilmember Burt Ballanfant — a longtime proponent of a park in that area and who had recently insisted on using $2 million in 2006 bond funding for a project — was absent.)

The city takes over maintenance and mowing on the property on June 1 and will have 90 days to review whether it wants to retain the structure and its contents. If not, they will be turned over to St. Vincent DePaul Church, where Hughes was parishioner and volunteer.

A task force likely to consist of representatives from the Parks Board, Friends of West University Parks board, Seniors Board, a council liaison — and possibly a Hughes family representative — will be formed to review design and development.

When asked for a development timeline, O’Connor likened the new project to Friends Park, which took 8 ½ months.

In other action, council:

  • Approved an expenditure, not to exceed $28,000, to install four adult fitness stations along the perimeter of the walking-jogging track at the West University Recreation Center. The funds come from the Friends of West U Parks.
  • Voted to incorporate draft wording from a task force studying city facilities into the November 2015 Facilities Master Plan developed by staff and PGAL consultants. Among their recommendations were to retain the Public Works main facility on Milton Street, retain the city’s Dincans Street property for possible use in the foreseeable future, to complete budgeted improvements on the library, to canvass the community about the future of the library, Community Building and Senior Center, and to create a longterm plan for acquiring city property.
  • Voted to join a Houston Coalition of Cities group serving as watchdog on a new CenterPoint energy rate request and to formally oppose the move. That has the effect of getting the Texas Public Utilities Commission to review the matter before it can take effect on Sept. 1.
  • In a tie vote, failed to change the summer schedule for meetings. Kelly, Reilly — and reportedly, Ballanfant — all indicated they would miss multiple meetings. Sample and Turner said they had built their summer around the meetings and felt the public expected those routine dates.

Sample said changing meeting dates would “set a bad precedent.” We’ve scheduled around the meetings,” she said, “I expect my councilmembers to do the same.”

Although the issue was defeated, Reilly succeeded in having it put on the next agenda for a vote when Ballanfant could be present.

This 15,000-square-foot property on Sewanee is being bequeathed to West U by lifelong resident James Hughes to create a park in his mother's name. (Photo by Charlotte Aguilar)

This 15,000-square-foot property on Sewanee is being bequeathed to West U by lifelong resident James Hughes to create a park in his mother’s name. (Photo by Charlotte Aguilar)